Professional Development

For school administrators responsible for planning impactful professional development, understanding adult learning theory is key. Malcolm Knowles pioneered the concept of andragogy – the art and science of teaching adult learners. His research provides a strong framework for taking teacher PD from theory to practice. By intentionally applying Knowles’ principles of adult learning, administrators can design development opportunities that directly align to teachers’ motivations, needs, and experience levels. This creates more relevant, engaging PD that leads to greater buy-in and skill development.

In this article, we will overview Knowles’ core assumptions of adult learners and provide practical examples of how school leaders can integrate these concepts into PD design and delivery. With andragogy in action, administrators can transform traditional one-size-fits-all teacher PD into targeted development opportunities better suited to teachers’ needs, experience levels, and motivations.

Key Principles of Malcolm Knowles’ Adult Learning Theory

Knowles identified 5 main assumptions about the distinguishing characteristics of adult learners:

  1. Self-Concept – As people mature, they become more self-directed and independent. Adult learners need to have agency and input into their learning.
  2. Experience – Adults have accumulated diverse experiences that become an increasing resource for learning. PD should be designed to leverage their rich experience base.
  3. Readiness to Learn – Adults are most interested in acquiring knowledge and skills relevant to their work or personal lives. PD content should directly connect to teachers’ real-world roles and goals.
  4. Orientation to Learning – Adult learning is problem-centered rather than content-oriented. Adults seek immediate application of new knowledge and competencies.
  5. Motivation to Learn – While adults are responsive to external motivators like salary increases, the strongest motivators are internal, such as increased job satisfaction, self-esteem, and quality of life.

Strategies to Apply Adult Learning Theory to Teacher PD

With these core adult learner traits in mind, below are practical strategies school administrators can employ to design professional development aligned to Knowles’ framework:

  1. Promote teacher self-direction.

Provide choice in PD offerings based on interests and needs. Allow teachers to set individual learning goals and create personalized development plans. Build in reflective exercises so they can monitor their own progress.

  1. Tap into experience through collaboration and discussion.

Plan ample time for peer-to-peer exchange of ideas and expertise. Facilitate group discussion, analysis of real-world scenarios, and collective problem-solving. Create cross-departmental cohorts for sharing diverse perspectives.

  1. Demonstrate clear purpose and relevance.

Set objectives tied directly to teacher performance goals and student learning needs. Provide examples and models of real-world application so the utility is apparent. Solicit teacher input on growth areas to target development where it’s most useful.

  1. Incorporate active and practical learning opportunities.

Design hands-on workshops, interactive demos, peer observations, and simulations. Focus on authentic classroom scenarios and teaching issues. Provide opportunities to practice and receive feedback on new skills.

  1. Align external motivation with internal motivation.

Explain how new knowledge/skills will directly benefit teachers in the classroom and advance school improvement goals. Show how it ties into district initiatives. Allow teachers to chart their competency gains over time.

Additional Best Practices for Adult-Centered PD

In addition to directly applying Knowles’ principles, research points to other best practices consistent with an andragogical approach:

  • Differentiate programming based on diverse experience levels, competence, and learning needs within the teaching staff.
  • Establish mentoring and coaching relationships to provide sustained support beyond one-time workshops.
  • Offer flexible timing and formats – before/after school, summer, online, hybrid – to accommodate teacher schedules.
  • Solicit regular feedback from teachers on relevance, engagement and effectiveness of PD sessions. Gather input on future needs.
  • Provide resources and communities of practice so learning continues beyond formal PD. Support ongoing collaboration.
  • Develop longer-term PD plans and learning pathways mapped to developmental progression vs. one-off sessions.

Planning Needs Assessment Surveys Aligned to Adult Learning Goals

A key first step in applying an andragogical approach is to survey teachers on their professional learning goals, interests, preferences and perceived needs. Below are sample questions administrators could include on a PD needs assessment instrument:

  • What are your most important professional growth goals for this school year?
  • In which instructional or leadership areas do you want to improve your competencies?
  • What kinds of PD formats and delivery methods appeal most to your learning preferences?
  • What topics, strategies, or skills are you most interested in developing through PD opportunities?
  • How would you like to see your experience and expertise applied in future PD programming?
  • What motivates you most in pursuing professional learning? What benefits do you hope to gain?


Malcolm Knowles pioneered the study of adult learning theory, with profound implications for professional development. Applying his research on andragogy can help school leaders design more effective, engaging PD aligned tightly to teachers’ motivations, needs and learning styles. By following principles of adult learning, administrators will see greater teacher buy-in, knowledge gains, and instructional skill development – ultimately translating to improved student outcomes.